Summary and Analysis
Major Major Major Major is an officer whose last name is Major. His first and second names are Major. He holds the rank of major. Major enters the Army as a private, but a computer promotes him to the fourth officer grade of major within four days. Major has always felt isolated and wants only "to be absorbed," to feel that he is one of the guys; for a brief period, he enjoys that status on Pianosa. Unfortunately, Colonel Cathcart appoints Major Major to be the new squadron commander almost immediately. The rest of the men ostracize the new commander.
Clevinger's plane disappears in a cloud off the coast of Elba on a milk run to Parma, leading the narrator to a flashback of another disappearance at Lowery Field, two years before, and the story of Ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen. We learn the identity of the dead man in Yossarian's tent.
The theme of individuality takes an odd twist with the story of Major Major. Major is among the most mediocre of men, as the narrator reveals, distorting an old adage about "greatness": "Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them. With Major Major it had been all three." That is just fine with Major Major. He would like nothing more than to be lost in the crowd. Life has dealt him a series of practical jokes that make his desire impossible. The first is that he bears a "sickly resemblance" to a movie star of the time, Henry Fonda. The second is that Major's sadistic father secretly named his son "Major Major Major" as a cruel joke on the boy's mother who, too weak from childbirth to detect the lie, was told that the name was Caleb. When Major started school, he discovered that he was not who he thought he was. Friends, warned against socializing with strangers, abandoned him. Major experienced a horrible identity crisis that he has never overcome. Even the military won't allow him anonymity. An "I.B.M. machine with a sense of humor almost as keen as his father's" promotes the private to major so that his commanding officer, Lieutenant Scheisskopf, doesn't know whether to shout at him or salute. His short, happy life as one of the guys in the squadron on Pianosa ends abruptly when he is soon promoted to squadron commander. Major ultimately becomes a recluse.
Heller again employs distorted logic and language to make his point, as Major Major issues oxymoronic orders to his front office sergeant, who seeks clarification:
"What shall I say to the people who do come to see you while you're here?"
"Tell them I'm in and ask them to wait."
"Yes, sir. For how long?"
"Until I've left."
"And then what shall I do with them?"
"I don't care."
May I send them in to see you after you've left?"
But you won't be here then, will you?"
In the flashback to Lowery Field, we find that Ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen takes a different approach. He doesn't mind being singled out so long as the special treatment keeps him out of combat. Wintergreen is not surprised when sixty-four men in a single barrack disappear one payday and are never seen again. Wintergreen has made a profession of going AWOL. Each time he escapes, he is captured, reduced in rank from private first class to private, and sentenced to digging holes and then filling them up again, which seems to be emblematic of various meaningless military activities. Eventually he serves his time, earns promotion one grade to P.F.C., and goes AWOL once more. "It's not a bad life," he says. "And I guess somebody has to do it." Wintergreen will later be transferred to Twenty-seventh Air Force Headquarters as a mail clerk, rise to the rank of corporal, but again be busted to private.
The distorted, officious logic of the Army explains the mystery of the dead man in Yossarian's tent. A replacement pilot named Lieutenant Mudd had been killed before officially reporting to the squadron. Upon arrival at the squadron, he entered the operations tent, looking for the orderly room tent, and was immediately sent on a bombing mission because the squadron was temporarily short of men. He was blown to pieces over Orvieto within two hours of his arrival. Because the lieutenant never officially signed in, the military's position is that he was never there. The dead man's belongings are in Yossarian's tent, not the dead man himself.
desiccated completely dried; preserved by drying.
Miniver Cheevy title character in a poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869–1935).
obsequious showing too great a willingness to serve or obey; fawning.
prolix so wordy as to be tiresome; verbose.
AWOL Absent Without Official Leave.